Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Boundaries of "What If?"

I recently asked my Facebook page viewers if they would read a story with ghosts in it, that is, disembodied spirits of the dead. Some of the responses I received illustrated the fact that people disagree on the boundaries of speculative fiction for Christian authors and readers. In speculative fiction, we ask "What if?" questions related to our experiences and how the world might be if significant factors were different than they really are.

The important issue to learn regarding speculative fiction is that authors are not saying that their stories are true. In fact, we firmly state that they are not true. We are saying "if these factors were true, what might happen?" For example, I believe souls go to an afterlife and that they likely do not wander around on earth, but what if something occurred that blocked their passage to heaven or hell? What would it be like on earth?

Readers need to understand that the author is not making doctrinal statements or stating that such a scenario might happen. It probably doesn't happen. It likely won't ever happen. Yet the story can be an intriguing examination into the human psyche if something like this were to happen. We can learn from it, because it would follow the basic principles of biblical conduct and eternal values.

Some biblical principles are inherent in God's character, and some are not, and I would never depart from the inherent principles. For example, I would never write a story that shows God to be unloving, that depicts selfishness as good, or that rewards immoral behavior. A story in a Christian world view should uplift principles that will draw the reader to embrace virtues.

Yet there are truths in our world that, if altered in another setting, would not violate universal principles. For example, we know that God promised never to flood the world again. But what if an author were to write a story in which God never made such a promise? He could show the world getting flooded multiple times without violating God's character, because in that scenario, God would not lie. The author would alter the setting but not God's principles.

In the same way, what if an evil being were able to create a blocking mechanism that keeps souls bound on earth? There is nothing in the Bible that says God's goodness and principles are tied to the fact that in reality all souls immediately leave the world for an afterlife. So such a scenario would not violate eternal principles or promote immoral behavior. It would merely alter a setting.

Some readers appeal to biblical truths that everyone goes to an afterlife, either heaven or hell, so we shouldn't have stories with ghosts. The premise of the complaint is true. Everyone does go to an afterlife, but my point is that we can write a story that asks, what if that reality weren't true? What if spirits wandered on earth for a while? Such a scenario doesn't violate eternal principles or promote immoral behavior. It simply asks "what if?"

I could explain that the Bible shows a few ghostly appearances, such as Samuel, Moses, and Elijah, but with regard to whether a ghost story is allowed for Christians, this explanation should be irrelevant. Even if no ghostly being ever appeared within the pages of the Bible, it doesn't violate godly principles to pose a question that alters a setting as long as eternal and universal truths are honored.

This is speculative fiction. Even if I write about ghosts, that doesn't mean I believe they exist. I also write about anthrozils. I don't believe they exist either. I am not pretending that these settings are real.

Yet, I am sure that some will cry foul and say that such a story is not allowed. I think they would be wrong, but that's all right. I'm accustomed to handling disagreement. If people are offended at reading a speculative "what if" story because it doesn't exactly conform to a set of realities that are true in our world, even if altering those realities don't violate God's value system, then they might want to stay away from speculative fiction completely. This genre is the realm of the "what if," and Christian speculative fiction authors are free to ask that question as long as they stay true to eternal principles and promote a virtuous life.


Star-Dreamer said...

Very interesting concept. I believe much the same as you do, and I also agree with you about authors; we never claim that our stories are true, but rather ask what would happen if certain elements of the story were true, even though we know they are not.

Personally, I have one story concept I've been ruminating on that has to do with ghosts... sort of. Basically, one of my characters' abilities messes with time and somehow, if I remember correctly (it's been a while since I worked on the concept, you see) it rends the barriers between time, therefore bringing back "ghosts" of people that once were.

It's confusing, but like I said, it's only in concept stage.

In answer to your question though, yes, I would read books with ghosts in them, and have before. It's not that I believe in "ghosts" so much, but I enjoy a good read, and if the book doesn't brazenly go against anything I believe in as a Christian, then I might look at it, if not read it, and perhaps I might even enjoy it. ^_^

Anonymous said...

I would love a ghost story bring on the spooks


Kat Heckenbach said...

I love this post! It's so well-said. The way you put it is perfect--that there is a difference between asking "what if this event were true?" and writing fiction in which God's character is changed. THAT, to me, is the core of the whole thing. Saying, "what if we could travel by portal" or "what if aliens landed on Noah's ark" is just story-telling and playing with ideas. As long as we don't claim those things to have actually happened and we don't characterize God differently--as someone who goes back on His promises or who can be tempted by evil, etc.--then we're not doing anything wrong.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing post, Mr. Davis. I agree with you, and it has made related issues clearer to me. Thanks!

Araken said...

I am reminded of an essay by George MacDonald about the imagination. He makes a rather good case that, in fantasy, the author may change natural laws, but not moral ones. Thus, Dickens did not err in using ghosts; he presented evil as evil and good as good. Also, in The Great Divorce, Lewis did not err when he gave his ghosts the chance to stay in Heaven, even though no such choice is offered in reality.

I see no inherent issue with incorporating ghosts into stories.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!!! I will definetly look at books in a different light now!!!!

Anonymous said...

If someone had asked me previously whether or not I would read something with ghosts in it, I would have said no. Such books usually strike me as horrific and demonic. You have definitely changed my perspective Mr. Davis. I am not saying I will go around reading every book that contains spirits to make a point, but if an author I trust puts out a book about ghosts I will give it a chance.

Bruce Dockery said...

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, "What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?" This is not allegory at all… This…works out a supposition.

Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways. Bunyan’s picture of Giant Despair does not start from supposal at all. It is not a supposition but a fact that despair can capture and imprison a human soul. What is unreal (fictional) is the giant, the castle, and the dungeon. The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal: but granted the supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary.

-C.S Lewis, 1958

bminor said...

Thank you for this post, Bryan--very insightful and important. It is so disheartening to the writers of Christian Spec-Fic for folks to look down their noses at us and say, "That's not able to be supported by scripture! It's wrong." It's our job as speculative fiction writers to speculate. Asking "what if" doesn't mean we are beginning to believe our own imaginings are true!

Bryan Davis said...

Exactly right, bminor. Well stated.

J. Grace Pennington said...

I agree overall with what you said, however, I'm also cautious about writing things that are reasonably likely to confuse readers -- such as the presence of aliens or ghosts. However, that doesn't mean I won't read such things, or that I'll condemn another writer for writing them -- they aren't inherently wrong. It's just my personal conviction. For example, I would not write multiple dimensions because I think it messes too much with Creation and human souls, but I absolutely love the Echoes From the Edge series (so far!) and don't think it wrong that you wrote it.

I hope that makes sense, and I thank you for an excellent article!

Bryan Davis said...

Good question, J. Grace. I lean toward writing a story even if some elements might confuse readers. If we balk at writing a story just because some readers might become confused about what is real and what is not, then no stories would ever be written, because someone out there will be confused, no matter what.

J. Grace Pennington said...

Yes, that's a good point. I guess perhaps it comes down to the line between being careful and being afraid. We should always be prayerfully careful, but never make a decision in our writing out of fear. :)

Bryan Davis said...

I agree. Write with care but not with fear.